The fact that the Diamondbacks made nine roster moves before Tuesday’s MLB roster protection deadline might appear as nothing more than basic roster housekeeping. But the fact that they made any moves at all speaks to how far the franchise has come.
The need to make difficult decisions about which players to protect from the Rule 5 draft is a sign of a healthy farm system. It means that the Diamondbacks are flush with desirable prospects. That doesn’t mean hard decisions aren’t hard, though, and there is no doubt that designating outfielder Stone Garrett for assignment was among them.
The D-backs outfielder slashed .276/.309/.539 in 84 plate appearances in 2022. In addition to being one of the best stories in baseball, Garrett gave the D-backs much-needed balance to their heavily left-handed lineup. His absence opens a hole the team now has to fill. More on that later.
Tuesday also brought forth the first trade of the Diamondbacks’ offseason. They acquired flame-throwing pitching prospect Carlos Vargas from the Cleveland Guardians in exchange for righty Ross Carver.
Vargas posted a 3.67 ERA over 34.2 innings as a reliever in 2022, splitting time between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. Carver pitched well as a starter in High-A Hillsboro, but struggled upon reaching Double-A Amarillo.
The rest of the D-backs’ moves on Tuesday were largely unsurprising. In addition to Garrett, they designated INF Sergio Alcántara, OF Jordan Luplow and LHP Caleb Smith for assignment. They also added SS Blaze Alexander, OF Jorge Barrosa, OF Dominic Fletcher and RHP Justin Martinez to the 40-man roster, protecting them from December’s Rule 5 draft.
A conference call with general manager Mike Hazen on Tuesday evening revealed a few additional storylines. Here are five takeaways from the first day of significant Diamondbacks roster moves this offseason.
1. Carlos Vargas personifies the type of reliever the Diamondbacks want
Hazen has made it clear in the past that the D-backs are targeting velocity and swing-and-miss in the bullpen market, and 23-year-old Vargas fits that mold to a tee.
“He’s got a huge fastball with a slider,” Hazen said. “We’re banking on the stuff here coming in and playing a role for us.
“I feel like I have erred on the side of command out-making pitch-making, and I still believe that there’s a definitely a fundamental role to that,” Hazen said. “But we lack power in our bullpen. Like hard stuff, swing-and-miss stuff.”
According to Hazen, Vargas’ four-seam fastball clocked in over 100 MPH in 2022. He also throws a slider in the low 90s.
After sitting out 2020 due to the pandemic and 2021 due to Tommy John surgery, Vargas hadn’t pitched in an actual game for almost three years coming into this season. He made his first appearance on June 19, and went on to post a 4.81 ERA in 19 appearances for Double-A Akron before being promoted to Triple-A Columbus in September. He made a strong impression, allowing just one run in 10 innings with 16 strikeouts.
Hazen was noncommittal about Vargas’ role in the organization in 2023, but he did note that Vargas has minor league options should he need further seasoning in Triple-A. Vargas walked a relatively high 4.5 hitters per nine innings in 2022, which Hazen identified as an area for improvement moving forward.
In return, the Guardians received 23-year-old Carver, who is best known for a curveball that devastated hitters in High-A Hillsboro this year. In 81.1 innings with Hillsboro, he posted a 3.10 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 81.1 innings. Carver then struggled to the tune of a 9.50 ERA in nine starts with Double-A Amarillo.
In essence, the trade came down to the Diamondbacks choosing a young reliever over a young starter — something Hazen has been hesitant to do in the past.
“I have erred on the side of protecting all the starters at the expense of relievers,” Hazen said. “This is a slight shift in that stance.”
2. Stone Garrett’s fast start did not convince Diamondbacks’ front office
On paper, a .276/.309/.539 batting line in 84 plate appearances is a very promising beginning to a big-league career. Clearly, the D-backs — who now have no other right-handed hitting outfielders — have questions about his ability to sustain his early success.
One need not look too deep at Garrett’s numbers to see why they might have been skeptical. For starters, his strikeout rate in those 84 plate appearances was very high at 32.1 percent, and his walk rate was very low at 3.6 percent. Put simply, it is impossible to maintain strong offensive numbers with such poor strikeout and walk rates.
Other metrics suggest possible over-performance, too. Garrett’s .360 weighted on-base average was a far cry from his expected wOBA of .268. (wOBA is an all-encompassing offense stat that reads like an on-base percentage. League average was .310 in 2022.)
It is also worth noting that Garrett did the vast majority of his damage in his first 12 games, in which he slashed an eye-popping .424/.424/.818. After that, he batted just .163/.229/.326 with 20 strikeouts in 48 plate appearances.
Hazen did not say much about the move, other than that it was a “tough decision with where our roster sits right now.” Technically, the D-backs could retain Garrett should he clear waivers, but that is unlikely.
3. The Diamondbacks now need a right-handed hitting outfielder
After designating both Luplow and Garrett for assignment, the D-backs emptied their supply of right-handed hitting outfielders. When asked if the team will need to pursue one externally, Hazen did not mince words.
“Yes, that’s been something that we have talked about doing from the beginning,” Hazen said. “Our left-handed hitting outfielders are going to play the majority of the time is my guess. But we’ve talked about continuing to round out our team from the right side, and we’re going to continue to focus on that.”
With Jake McCarthy, Daulton Varsho, Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas and Pavin Smith already in the mix for Opening Day roster spots, the D-backs could look to trade a left-handed hitting outfielder. Regardless, they will still need to acquire an outfielder — via trade or free agency — who bats right-handed.
The decision to DFA Garrett says less about his standing among other outfield prospects in the organization than it does his standing among the external options the D-backs feel they could acquire. The team needs a right-handed outfielder no matter what, and they chose to go get one rather than keep Garrett.
4. Justin Martinez passed yet another test in 2022
For Hazen, adding Martinez to the 40-man roster was the end result of the 21-year-old rising to meet yet another challenge in 2022.
“We pushed him,” Hazen said. “We pushed him to see what he was going to be able to do against better competition…knowing that, if he pitched well, we were definitely going to have to add him.”
Martinez dominated the fall league with an electric upper-90s fastball and a newly added splitter, an offering that has become increasingly rare across the sport over the last decade. His 2.35 ERA and 13 strikeouts over 7.2 innings was enough to warrant a well-deserved appearance in the Fall Stars Game.
For Martinez, his brilliant fall performance was just the icing on the cake of an excellent season. In 38 regular season innings, the hard-throwing righty posted a 3.32 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and 62 strikeouts. He spent the majority of the year with High-A Hillsboro, but pitched well enough to earn promotions to both Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno by the end of the year.
With a strong spring training performance, Hazen suggested that Martinez could open the 2023 season on the big-league roster.
5. Jordan Luplow, Caleb Smith DFAs close door on pair of forgettable Diamondbacks trades
Designating Luplow and Smith for assignment was far from surprising, but Hazen’s track record in the trade market took a hit Tuesday as the D-backs moved on from a pair of former trade acquisitions.
The D-backs acquired Luplow from the Tampa Bay Rays last offseason in exchange for infielder Ronny Simon. Simon has yet to reach the majors, but he capped off a solid year in High-A and Double-A by slashing .325/.402/.550 in the fall league.
It is impossible to evaluate the deal without seeing Simon in the big leagues, but there’s no getting around the fact that Luplow’s .176/.274/.361 batting line in 2022 was underwhelming. The D-backs may not lose the trade, but they can’t win it, either.
The deal that brought Smith to the D-backs happened on Aug. 31, 2020, and has already looked bad for a while. The D-backs sent outfielder Starling Marte to the Miami Marlins in exchange for Smith, RHP Humberto Meija and RHP Julio Frias.
The D-backs designated Meija for assignment in April. Frias is still in the organization, but struggled to the tune of a 7.54 ERA and 2.12 WHIP in 22.2 innings for High-A Hillsboro in 2022.
In 93 appearances (17 starts) with the D-backs across three seasons, Smith went 5-12 with a 4.44 ERA, 5.26 FIP and 1.35 WHIP. He performed significantly better as a reliever than a starter.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Smith was projected to make $2.7 million in arbitration in 2023. He was in decent position to have that contract tendered until the final day of the year, when the lefty tore a ligament in his throwing elbow. Hazen acknowledged that played a role in the team’s decision to move on.
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